The first beatitude teaches us, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
The Gospel calls us to a paradox in its teaching on poverty. First, it bids us recognize in the face of the poor the face of Christ. Our culture is resistant to this idea and likes to hurriedly put emphasis on the words “in spirit” in order to distance ourselves from looking into the faces of the hobos, winos, toothless geezers, street kids with fleas, addicts, schizophrenics, brawling illiterates and smelly people who are, after all, what the word “poor” often refers to. To be sure (as we shall see in a moment) poverty of spirit is a good thing. But we should first note that Jesus himself is elsewhere recorded as pronouncing a blessing on the poor–period (Luke 6:20)). Because of this, our tradition has always preserved what is known as the “preferential option for the poor”: the assumption that the poor, being among the most defenseless in our midst, not only require the care of the rest of society and not our contempt but, more than that, that they are “blessed”: that is, somehow set apart and above the rest of us by God, simply by virtue of the fact that they are poor. There’s no clause in there about their being virtuous, deserving, likeable or hygienic. It is an act of pure grace and generosity by God.
We should linger over that fact for a while and not hurry on too quickly to spiritualizing the saying, still less to telling the poor to get with the program and pull themselves up by their bootstraps so as to stop being poor. To be sure, self-improvement is a fine thing and there’s nothing wrong with helping people improve their economic fortunes. But our Calvinist culture is overly quick to assume that the poor are the way they are because they are shiftless, etc. So our first impulse is to blame. The gospel does not take this easy route. That’s why Christ’s first words to the poor are words of blessing, not of blame or advice. He does this despite the fact that the Jewish tradition–especially in the book of Proverbs–is chockablock with all sorts of blame and advice for the poor, just as Christian culture is. He has something deeper to say: namely, that Christ, who was rich, became poor for our sake and so he identifies himself in a peculiar way with the poor and calls us to see himself in them. Our task, first, is to see that: to hold our tongues from the reams of blame and advice we itch to give the poor and to contemplate the reality that in encountering them, we are encountering Jesus Christ.
At the very same time, the gospel has no truck with the romantic leftist notion that the poor are automatically morally noble by virtue of their poverty. In other words, they are blessed, but they are not automatically saints. Suffering can sanctify, but it need not necessarily do so. As we ourselves know when we suffer, it is not the case that mere suffering automatically makes us disposed to hear and obey the Holy Spirit. The fundamental human dignity of the poor is that they retain the human power to choose beatitude or damnation. And so, for instance, a hundred years ago, a poor man whom Christ blessed along with all the poor roamed the streets of Vienna, struggling to keep food in his belly, living among the rat-infested underclass. His father had beaten him as a child and his beloved mother had died of cancer. Like countless young men before him, he dreamed of being an artist and he spent years in poverty as he strove to achieve his vision. But for all that, Adolf Hitler was not transformed into a saint.
That is the paradox of this beatitude. When looking at the poor, we must see the face of Christ who identifies himself with them. But we must not (especially in facing our own poverty) make the easy assumption that we identify ourselves with Christ. We may know for certain that our humble Lord is God with us in all the desert places of our life, but we dare not suppose that merely being poor is a guarantee of our sanctity. We must recognize our poverty–whether financial, emotional, spiritual or physical–as a great opportunity, but not presume from it that we are therefore paragons of virtue.
Here, then, is the twofold promise of this beatitude: You can spot a poor man easily, but you will never see his spirit. That’s why we are not to judge but are simply to assume that the poor we meet are Jesus and act accordingly. It is only in our own case that we and we alone have the power to bid the poor man to be truly poor in spirit. If we see Christ in the face of the poor and treat them like him, we shall be blessed. If we acknowledge our poverty and need of God and look to him to fill our need we shall be twice blessed.
(For more on the Beatitudes, go here to order Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes and a Joyful Life.)